A musical ensemble is a group of three or more musicians who gather to perform music. There are several denominations of ensembles according to their size and composition.
The terms duet, trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, septet, octet, and nonet are used to describe groups of two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine musicians, respectively. In classical music, these arrangements are commonly referred to as chamber music.
A common quartet is the string quartet, composed of two violins, a viola and a violoncello. A quartet (string, wind etc.) is an ensemble of 4 players and is also the name for music written (e.g. by Mozart, Beethoven) for an ensemble of 4 players.
The most usual string quintet is similar to the string quartet, but with the viola duplicated. In some cases, though, it is the violoncello that is duplicated. Terms such as “piano quintet” or “clarinet quintet” frequently refer to a string quarter plus a fifth instrument. Thus, a piano quintet is usually a string quartet plus a piano. Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is similarly a piece written for an ensemble consisting of 2 violins, a viola, a cello and a clarinet, the last being the exceptional addition to a “normal” string quartet.
Another fairly common grouping in classical music is the wind quintet, usually consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn.
Six or more instruments
A group with more instruments is usually called an orchestra. A small orchestra is called a chamber orchestra. A symphony orchestra is a large body of several tens and often more than a hundred musicians, divided in groups of instruments: strings (including violins (I and II), violas, violoncellos, basses), woodwind, brass, percussion, and sometimes more. The description Philharmonic (from Greek philos: love) was originally used by amateur orchestras, distinguishing them from professional Symphony orchestras, but nowadays professional classical orchestras may use either term in their titles. A Sinfonietta usually denotes a somewhat smaller orchestra (though still not a chamber orchestra), and the terms concert or pops orchestra usually mean an orchestra concentrating mainly on the light classical and more popular repertoire. A string orchestra has only strings, i.e., violins, violas, violoncellos and basses.
In jazz, the most common trio consists of a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums.
A quartet would typically add a horn (the generic jazz name for saxophones, trombones, trumpets, or any other wind instrument commonly associated with jazz) while larger ensembles would add further instruments. The lineup of jazz ensembles can vary considerably.
Other Western musical ensembles
In the 1900’s, the Wind Symphony or Wind Ensemble became popular, especially in academic circles. A wind ensemble consists entirely of wind instruments and percussion instruments, but may also include stringed bass. Schools from elementary level onward often have a school band program which is usually centered around its wind ensemble, often known as a concert band.
A choir is a group of voices. Sometimes the group of similar instruments in an orchestra are referred to as a choir. For example, the woodwind instruments of a symphony orchestra could be called the woodwind choir.
A group that plays popular music or military music is usually called a band. Classical musicians colloquially refer even to the likes of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as their band.
A group that plays anything from jazz to orchestral, military to popular music while marching on a football field, without being a true marching band, is called a drum and bugle corps. All drum corps perform on brass and percussion instruments only, and some corps perform on bugles in the key of G, while others perform on brass instruments in multiple keys, depending on the group. Drum and Bugle Corps are known for maximizing power and pagentry in their performances, while performing incredibly difficult programs.
- Jug band
- Mexican Mariachi groups typically consist of:
- at least two violins
- two trumpets
- one Spanish guitar
- one vihuela (a high-pitched, five-string guitar)
- one Guitarrón (a small-scaled acoustic bass).
Non-Western musical ensembles
- A gamelan is an ensemble of Indonesian origin (usually Balinese or Javanese). There are dozens of varieties of gamelan ensembles with musicians playing metallophones, drums, flutes, bamboo and wooden marimbas and gongs.
- The Steelpan created in Trinidad and Tobago are the core components of percussion ensembles called Steelbands that play Calypso music.